Narco Estado: an advertisement of terror

By Merryn Johnson

Teun Voeten’s CV reads like a guide to some of the world’s most dangerous places.

“For 25 years I’ve been working [as a photojournalist and anthropologist] and seeing pretty nasty things, to put it diplomatically, in Rwanda, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Congo, but this is savagery and depravity that I have not seen.”

Voeten has been photographing the effects of the Mexican drug wars since 2009, when he travelled to Ciudad Juarez, epicentre of the violence which threatens to engulf the country, as well as Culiacan and Michoacan. His book, Narco Estado, presents the arbitrary brutality and disturbing public displays of violence and cruelty that are played out daily in a region where authority and crime have merged, where all are vulnerable, and where there is rarely any justice.

Last night, Voeten presented his work in conversation with Peter Watt, Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield, and co-author of Drug War Mexico: Politics, Violence and Neoliberalism in the New Narcoeconomy.

Voeten’s photographs are a damning catalogue of how cheap life has become: bloodied, tied hands; police so overworked by 10 murders a day that they are reduced to being blasé about butchered bodies; desolate towns, devastated by the ultra-capitalism and narco-cultura of the cartels; acres of graves, marked only with serial numbers; splattered bloodstains on the wall of a sports stadium, where seven people were killed with Kalashnikovs; and a soldier taking a picture of a body on a blood-washed pavement.

As a war-photographer, Voeten was drawn to this topic as it is the newest form of war, a scary development away from the more traditional forms of warfare, where terror is advertised, where ultra-capitalism exploits every imaginable human misery.

“It asserts the power of each criminal organisation but it creates a climate of terror among the population…. Why?” asked Watt.

“It’s very dark and deep. It’s instrumental and symbolic…. Death is part of dehumanising an enemy but in Mexico it goes one step further: decapitation, body parts put in plastic bags along the highway or throwing out 20 killed people in rush hour. It’s a display to the other cartels and authorities and the population: Don’t mess with us. We’re cabrónisimo.”

And as the gap between the filthy rich and the filthy poor widens, it creates a reservoir of people with no hopes and no dreams – an underclass of people who feel and are excluded. The culture of the cartels – live fast and die young – is, says Voeten, actually a very rational assessment of the situation, because the alternative is only a miserable, impoverished life.

When asked about the role of religion in this traditionally very Catholic country, Voeten said: “This is something I want to find out. It is a very strong Catholic country, but with strong Aztec roots…. You have a very perverted cult, Santa Muerte, which has become very hip among drug criminals and they have started to revere death and gory violence. There’s even a narco saint, Malverde.”

Perhaps the solution is to legalise all drugs?

“No, no, no. I don’t think it’s a good idea to legalise crystal meth or crack cocaine. Some people can use drugs responsibly, but you cannot leave it up to the free market because criminal elements will always exploit addiction.”

Voeten’s book, Narco Estado, can be bought through his website.